What Is Lyocell Fabric? And Is It Sustainable?
With the rise of sustainable fashion, I've seen multiple fibers that promise to be the future of the industry. Organic cotton is one of the biggest bets, ethical wool is an interesting option, and vegan leather is no slouch. However, there's another fiber that has slowly but surely conquered the slow fashion landscape and has managed to amaze many well-known brands... Oh yeah, I'm talking about Lyocell!
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This fabric seems to be on everyone's lips and just like any good eco-journalist, I want to know all the details about it! Stick with me as we go on a journey together to find out what exactly Lyocell is, what its pros and cons are, and whether I recommend adding this fiber to your closet or not. Let's get started!
What Is Lyocell Fabric made from?: A Brief History
Before we dive into the specifics of Lyocell, let's break down the history of this popular sustainable cellulosic fabric.
Lyocell fiber was initially developed by the fibers facility American Enka in 1972 to improve on rayon, motivated primarily by environmental concerns. For nearly 7 years the fibers facility tried to commercialize Lyocell, without any success. However, the innovative fiber — named Newcell at the time— had a lot of potential, so in 1980 American Enka decided to license the patent to two companies, Courtaulds in the UK and Lenzing in Austria.
It was from that point on that things began to blossom for Lyocell. In 1990 it was successfully commercialized, and after years of preparatory research, in 2000 Lenzing fully licensed what is now known as TENCELl™, Lyocell's brand name.
Of course, the manufacturing process of Lyocell has changed from its conception in 1972 to the modern era, but its origin remains the same: wood pulp. It all starts with wood, mostly wood from eucalyptus trees, which is cut after being harvested and then ground into a pulp.
Then, this pulp is dissolved with a NMMO (N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide) solvent, and after the remaining cellulose is pushed through cigarettes (tiny weenie holes), it's washed, dried, carded, and cut. That's it! But if all this explanation sounds a bit overwhelming to you, in a nutshell, Lyocell is made out of wood. That's the most important thing you need to know!
Is lyocell natural or synthetic?
Lyocell has natural origins but it's processed with synthetic substances, so it falls somewhere in between natural fibers (wool, hemp, cotton, wool, etc) and man-made fibers (polyester, nylon, etc). It's commonly known as a semi-synthetic fiber or as a processed cellulosic fiber, so if fully synthetic fibers are not your cup of tea (relatable) or you are looking for vegan alternatives, Lyocell may suit you.
What does lyocell feel like?
Sometimes which fabric you purchase may come down just to how it feels against your skin, and if the fabric you have in your hands feels itchy or rough, it may not be for you. So, what does Lyocell feel like? Well, I can answer that with just one word: smooooth. This fiber has a smooth surface that makes it non-irritating, perfect for people with sensitive skin or for the ones who simply enjoy softer fabrics (who doesn’t?).
How Much Does Lyocell Fabric Cost?
The only reason why Lyocell hasn't yet dominated over other fibers is that it tends to be more expensive than them, as it costs more to produce and involves technology that is not as cheap. E.g., 1 meter of Lyocell fabric costs about $23.00, while 1 meter of cotton fabric costs about $17.00 While this is not an abysmal price increase, this difference can also be noticed in ready-made garments such as tees, an organic cotton one running around $9.99, and a Lyocell one running around $29.95. After all, good things come at a price!
Has Lyocell been greenwashed?
I can’t stress this enough: don’t let greenwashing fool you! Any fabric can be greenwashed. Even Lyocell has been greenwashed, so make sure to look for third-party certifications like FSC Certification or B Corp when you go out shopping.
Checking labels is always a good rule of thumb, but what if you can’t get much information from the labels? Well, in that case, you can always use the millennial’s best friend: Google! Just enter the brand name of the product you want to buy and take a look at their website, especially in the "About Us" and "Sustainability" sections, and check if they use Lyocell Tencel or something else. If you don't find anything about it... Think twice about buying it.
What is Lyocell used for?
Yes, most products made from Lyocell can be found in the fashion aisle, but this fiber can be found in a variety of products, not just activewear, t-shirts, leggings, cardigans, or underwear. I’m talking about stretchy scrunchies, comfy bed sheets, soft towels, and even curtains.
The difference between Lyocell and Tencel
Although Lyocell and TENCEL™ are both wood-based pulp fibers, the main difference between them is that Lyocell is made from bamboo pulp, while TENCEL™ is made from wood pulp of eucalyptus trees. To put it simply, TENCEL™ is basically a brand name for a type of Lyocell, just as Tupperware is a brand name for a type of plastic container. Also, TENCEL™ is the highest quality Lyocell, but honestly, they’re pretty much the same thing.
How Does Lyocell Impact the Environment?
Right off the bat, I can safely say one thing: Lyocell impacts the environment in a mostly positive way compared to other fibers.
First of all, the eucalyptus wood from which Lyocell is extracted (in the case of TENCEL™) isn't harvested from random endangered forests, but from sustainably managed forests. This is a big concern that many brands have when they first hear about Lyocell: But if it's made from eucalyptus trees, aren't they wiping out the forests that have those trees? Well, no, fortunately not. For every tree cut down, more trees are planted to replace it.
Furthermore, the eucalyptus tree grows very fast on any land, without needing pesticides or other chemicals, and it doesn't require much water — less than half as much as cotton does.
Remember I mentioned above that the wood pulp used to make Lyocell is dissolved in an NMMO solvent? Well, not only is this solvent way less toxic than traditional sodium hydroxide solvents, but it is also 99% reused to repeat the procedure in a closed-loop process. That means that those chemicals aren't left in the fiber or released into the environment!
Plus, this entire process is closely measured and monitored to ensure minimal ecological footprint, and the result is fiber so clean and biodegradable that the garments made out of it can even be compostable.
Pros & Cons of using Lyocell Material
Pros of Lyocell
- Lyocell's biggest pro is its eco-friendly pros. This fiber comes from sustainable sources such as bamboo pulp and wood pulp of eucalyptus trees, is made with a closed-loop process, uses no pesticides requires much less water than other natural fibers. All this makes it a compostable, biodegradable, and highly sustainable fiber.
- It's very pleasant to wear thanks to its soft and smooth texture, perfectly suitable for people with sensitive skin.
- It's pretty long-lasting, strong, and stretchy even though it is a delicate fabric, which makes it excellent for people who go on outdoor adventures.
- Continuing with its benefits for sports enthusiasts, Lyocell is a highly breathable fiber and efficient at absorbing moisture, so it's definitely perfect for making activewear.
- It can be dyed (with non-highly toxic dyes, of course) to any color you can imagine.
- It can be blended with other fibers such as organic cotton or wool.
- It makes a great antibacterial fabric thanks to its moisture management properties.
- Some variations of Lyocell, such as TENCEL™ Sun, feature UV protection, and the best part is that it's physical protection, not a chemical one. This makes it safe for the skin and unaffected by sweat.
Cons of Lyocell
- Honestly, the main con of Lyocell is its price. As I mentioned a few paragraphs above, this fiber can be somewhat pricey compared to other mass-produced fibers due to production costs.
- If blended with other fibers such as polyester or spandex, the fabric won't be compostable. It's only fully compostable on its own.
- Being a delicate fiber, Lyocell requires some specific care when it comes to washing, drying, and ironing. But don't worry, it's no big deal. It’s all about not subjecting the fiber to high temperatures. If you want to know what those specific cares are, I mention them in the FAQ section below — keep scrolling!
- Despite this product being highly sustainable and eco-friendly, there is one detail that Lyocell is missing: its high energy consumption. Welp, nothing in this life is perfect, am I right?
Brands that use Lyocell Fabric in their Clothing
Lyocell scrunchies? Check! Lyocell hoodies? Check! Lyocell joggers? Check! Encircled is a brand that focuses on one thing: basics and they do it through the wonderful lens that is sustainability. Oh, and you know what the best part is? Their products are 100% Canadian-made!
TENCEL™ Lyocell is one of their favourite fibers along with Modal, organic cotton, and other sustainable alternatives, so don't be surprised if you find a mix of these in several of their garments. The beauty of this is that they manage to give their cardigans, for example, the distinct advantages that each fabric has without risking their commitment to the environment.
Plus, their commitment is not only to the environment but also to their workers. Encircled has their workshops in Toronto where they cut, sew, knit, and dye everything they sell under excellent working conditions. It's always good to support national businesses that have good intentions!
Allbirds say that Mother Nature is their muse, and I can tell. Not only does this brand count with several eco certifications (including the strict Forest Stewardship Council® one), but they also make sure we know why they count with those verifications.
They are completely transparent when it comes to clarifying where the materials they use for their products come from, and they always aim to work with the best, such as ethical ZQ Merino wool and the flagship fiber of this post, Lyocell.
They have used TENCEL™ Lyocell in many of their garments since 2016, both in their activewear collection "Natural Run" and in their most innovative collection to date, "Tree.” In it, they included none other than shoes made of TENCEL™ Lyocell, which they listed as "the world's most comfortable (sustainable) shoes.” Allbirds making history FTW!
I know, I know, me talking about Patagonia again, what a shocker! But hear me out: if you're looking for activewear made from Lyocell, this brand won't let you down.
They've been making warm-weather garments from TENCEL™ lyocell for a while now (since 2003!), and not only do they use the traditional, virgin form of this fabric, but they also use a variation called REFIBRA® which combines Lyocell with recycled pre-consumer cotton scraps. Patagonia is constantly looking for new ways to up its sustainability game, and with REFIBRA®, they've certainly done that by reusing cotton textile waste that would have been discarded. It's why we've featured them in our sustainable backpacks guide and our ethical winter coats guide! Is there anything this brand isn't doing right?!
tentree is TENCEL™ Lyocell #1 fan, period. On their website, they explicitly state that they proudly feature this wood pulp fiber throughout their seasonal collections (like hats and socks), and this can be verified by clicking on their online store. The amount of garments they have made from TENCEL™ Lyocell is nuts, and I love it! There's a wide variety to choose from, so if you're looking for affordable ethical fashion made from this versatile material and can't find something you like, don't hesitate to visit tentree's online store. Surely there will be something with your name written all over it.
Fun fact: Did you know that Tentree plants 10 trees for every item purchased in their store? Yup, their brand name isn’t just a pun. They do take action! When I search for sustainable brands, I always give extra points to those who also give an extra effort to help our mother Earth, and Tentree definitely earned a couple of ones.
Alright, so we've already gone over what Lyocell material is, mentioned its pros and cons, and even listed some brands that use it in their garments, but chances are you still have some doubts about it. If so, don't worry — I'm here to answer them! Welcome to the Lyocell FAQs section.
Is lyocell better than cotton?
Let's begin by answering the million-dollar question: is Lyocell better than cotton? Well, if we're talking about traditional cotton, yes, it is.
The main advantage of Lyocell over traditional cotton is that it's much more sustainable than its fluffy counterpart, which is no surprise since cotton is literally one of the world's thirstiest and dirtiest crops. Just to give you an idea, Lyocell doesn't require highly toxic chemicals and doesn't need harmful pesticides. Traditional cotton can't say the same thing!
Even if we compare it to organic cotton, Lyocell still beats it in the sustainability department as it requires 5 times less land for its main component to grow. And if we talk about its physical properties... Well, Lyocell also has several plus points. It tends to be more absorbent than cotton, more breathable, and even softer. Sorry cotton, but this time Lyocell wins!
Is lyocell a good fabric?
Lyocell is a comfortable, soft, and durable fiber that provides UV protection and is also anti-bacterial. I mean, what more could you ask for? Not only is it a good fabric, but it's also an excellent fabric for those who have sensitive skin or who just want to renew their closet with a sustainable alternative. "But isn't it a delicate fabric?" you may ask. Indeed, it is a delicate fabric that requires care, but not excessive care.
Does lyocell wrinkle easily?
Although cellulosic fibers are prone to wrinkling quite easily, this is not the case with Lyocell. There may be a few wrinkles here and thereafter washing, but this material is less prone to wrinkling than others — such as cotton, linen, or rayon. If you find yourself in a situation where you need a perfect shirt without a wrinkle, don't panic! You can use an iron BUT at its lowest temperature setting that produces steam and with a pressing cloth between the shirt and the iron. If you iron at high temperatures and with nothing to act as a barrier between the iron and the fabric, the heat may scorch the fibers, so be careful. As always, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Does lyocell shrink when washed?
I have good news and bad news: the good news is that as long as you wash your Lyocell garment with cold water, it won't shrink! The bad news is that this quality will only shine through after the first wash, because once the garment arrives at your home and you decide to wash it for the first time, even with cold water, it will shrink by about 3%. This is a minimal percentage, but it should be mentioned anyway. Also, just try to wash it gently by hand, but in case you prefer to do it in the washing machine, turn on the gentle cycle and when it's time to dry it, opt for drip drying, preferably. P.S: Always read the garment care label!
Is lyocell stretchy?
Yes, it is! Forget about those old stretched-out leggings that made you look like The Saggy Baggy Elephant. Every garment made of Lyocell returns to its original size and shape no matter how many times you wear it or stretch it. However, despite its stretchy qualities, it isn't a miracle fiber. It's not as stretchy as spandex, rubber, nylon, or elastic.
Is lyocell breathable?
Lyocell was designed with one specific quality in mind (in addition to sustainability): comfort. Thanks to its excellent moisture-wicking properties, it's the ideal fabric if you sweat heavily during the day or even at night. However, Lyocell's freshness is most noticeable when we're at the gym or working out at home. If we wear other materials, it's normal that in these scenarios, we end up drenched in sweat and even smelly, and this is precisely why Lyocell is an excellent material for activewear. It simply allows your skin to breathe and prevents you from feeling extra sweaty!
Is lyocell good for summer or hot weather?
As I previously mentioned, this fabric does a great job at maintaining a fresh feel as it pulls moisture away and promotes cooling. However, is it a good choice for summer or hot weather? Absolutely! Lyocell literally pulls heat away from your skin, so it's great for summer or for people living in warm or humid countries. If the heat is slowly melting you away at night and a fan just isn't doing the trick, grab your best Lyocell bed sheet and sleep peacefully, confident that you'll enjoy your bedtime without waking up swimming in sweat.
Lyocell is a sustainable fabric and a great alternative
After doing extensive research on this popular fabric, I feel qualified to answer the question that many of my readers probably asked themselves at the beginning of this post: is it worth the hype? Well, my verdict is that… Yes! It is worth the hype.
Of course, Lyocell has a long way to go towards actually replacing cotton or any other un-eco-friendly fiber, but it’s definitely one of the softest, most durable and sustainable fabrics out there.
Now that you know all the key advantages that Lyocell brings versus a lot of other fabrics, what are you waiting for to incorporate this sustainable alternative into your life? Give Lyocell a try! If you have already done so and have a couple of garments made of Lyocell hanging in your closet, tell me, which one is your favorite? Do you think it's better than cotton? Do you think it's worth the hype? Leave your opinion in the comment box below!
And of course remember, shopping second-hand and aiming for a minimalist wardrobe is one of the best things you can do to achieve slow fashion!
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